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Libraries offer free access to information. On the other hand, libraries are under considerable pressure.
Ann Theis

Issue #25, March 1996

One of my favorite library stories (possibly true) is about the librarian who meets an acquaintance on the steps of the library: the acquaintance asks the librarian how things are going and the librarian replies that things are fine, all the books are safely on the shelves except for one — and the librarian is on the way to retrieve that book. I feel certain that this librarian also resisted weeding ("deselecting books").

Libraries offer free access to information. Even the Internet, supposedly the place where information is free, does cost money — start up costs for equipment, and, unless you're very lucky, continuing costs for net access (paid either directly to an access provider, or indirectly through university tuition fees, or received as part of the benefits of working). For a nominal fee, libraries provide free access to a range of books and other resources which most people, even professionals, couldn't afford to obtain on their own.

On the other hand, libraries are under considerable pressure — in terms of what their shelf space allows them to keep on hand, and in terms of what books and other materials they can purchase. Some of the full text online/CD-ROM sources will increase access — if libraries can afford the technology. With budget constraints, libraries are often forced to choose between technology and books when both should be available. Budget constraints also mean limiting the type of service offered. Interlibrary loan, interbranch loans, cooperative agreements with other area libraries and document delivery are our fall back positions, which may provide access to materials that the library system can't afford to own.

Libraries can provide better access and more materials, if the collection is maintained and 'unneeded' or 'outdated' material is removed. Library collections grow continually and need the same high level of tending that a good garden requires. Librarians call this weeding, and it is an integral part of collection management. The weeding process involves the removal of materials that are outdated, inaccurate, worn, or no longer in demand.

Weeding both affects library use and is affected by library use. Library patrons often have a huge impact on weeding in the fiction area. If library users have forsaken Frances Parkinson Keyes for Barbara Taylor Bradford, then in all likelihood, most books by Keyes would be weeded. It is a good bet that if a library no longer needs five copies of an older Danielle Steel book then some of the extra copies will be weeded and either held in storage or discarded in accordance with library policy.

Changing demographics or interests can affect the weeding process. If a segment of the population suddenly needs more material in a given area, then other areas may need to be weeded to accommodate the new material. Since shelf space is often at a premium in some libraries, it may be imperative to weed in order to find shelf space for new material. Our system has several libraries with seven feet high shelving and books are crammed on each shelf. A short person has to be very flexible to reach items on the top shelf (even with a step stool).

The criterion for weeding varies from library to library. I am partial to using the same criterion as required for selection — demand for material, currency and accuracy, space and budget concerns, usefulness and appeal, appropriateness of format/context/style, value of material in relation to the entire collection, and the availability of material in other area libraries.

More recent models of libraries propose a dynamic relationship between the materials available and the demand for that material. Librarian Sharon Baker promotes the concept of the responsive public library. Baker believes that "public librarians may be moving beyond both a strict product orientation, in which librarians limit themselves to dictating public taste and strict market orientation, in which they limit themselves to interpreting public taste... an organization with a societal-marketing orientation feels that its main task is to identify the needs and wants of its customers and to adapt the organization to delivering satisfactions that preserve or enhance the customers' and society's well-being."

It isn't appropriate for librarians to 'dictate public taste', because, as Baker notes, "public libraries are funded by government agencies in order to improve the quality of life for community residents. Librarians should be aware that the materials and services they believe may improve the quality of life for their community may differ from what the community wants and needs from their library. Does anyone remember Jorge, the gatekeeper librarian, from Umberto Eco'sThe Name of the Rose? He was not committed to providing access to information and material, instead he attempted to control and limit access to Aristotle's work because he was frightened by it and feared the effect it might have on his community. So his library was "doomed by its own impenetrability, by the mystery that protected it, by its few entrances." Jorge doesn't provide a good model of responsive librarianship since he refused to allow access to any material that offended his personal belief system.

The gatekeeper instinct is strong and subversive. Librarians do need to be aware of their personal biases and remember that their main purpose is to provide access, not exercise control. On the other hand, collection management is a subjective process and the intervention of the librarian's personal preferences can't be completely eradicated. Balancing personal preferences with public interests is the most difficult part of collection management. A good library should have something to please everyone and something to offend everyone.

Personally, I get queasy selecting a novel like the Illuminati for our collection; but I rationalize it by recognizing that there is a demand for this type of material in our community. Including far right conspiracy books allows me to meet the needs of members of the community who might otherwise object to some of the fiction that I really want to purchase. I would be over the edge professionally if I suddenly went berserk and ordered the same number of copies of a book by Scott Bradfield as of a book by John Grisham. Since the library where I work is located in a conservative county I need to order lots of books to reflect those beliefs. But, in the quest for diversity I also seek out material that reflects leftist or progressive tenets. I have to pay attention to the twinges of self censorship I experience every so often and question why I am nervous about selecting or weeding a certain title.

Having the right book for the right person at the right time is a laudable goal for libraries. Defining what makes a book "good" is very subjective task. Italo Calvino did a good job describing the different needs books fulfill in If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Most definitions of "good" literature or "good" reads could be as hotly debated as the issue of weeding/selection is debated by both librarians and nonlibrarians. Nonfiction areas like medicine, law, etc. need to be weeded on a regular basis (five years is old for this type of material, unless it is a classic source). Computer books which are older than three years are often worthless. Out of date information is of no use to anyone, and can be dangerous or misleading. The average age of our juvenile science collection is 1982 — and it possible that we may still have some books that claim that "some day man may walk on the moon." We need to weed materials and obtain funding to buy new materials. Cookbooks, decorating books, social science books are other nonfiction areas that require regular weeding. Of course, you rarely need to weed any cookbook that has anything to do with chocolate.

Of course, there is no consensus about weeding. Slote, an expert on the weeding process, lists some of the types of weeding practices used by various libraries. The most extreme practice states that "all collections should be kept absolutely intact: books represent the accumulated recorded written heritage of civilization...the removal of anything is considered profane." The most common practice states that "collections may be weeded, gingerly, by professionals only, using good judgement, not rules. The goal is to maintain a well-balanced collection that will match the needs and wants of users." Slote found that "it is a fair assumption that past use is the best predictor of future use and the core collection is that body of materials which is being individual model is required for each library."

If defining a "good" book is a difficult process then defining what makes a public library "good" is equally complicated. The Public Library Association has established eight roles for public libraries. In my opinion a really good public library would be able to offer its users the total services of all the designated roles for public libraries. In reality, all the roles are important but may be adopted to various degrees, depending on library funding. The percentages note the number of libraries choosing the role as a primary one:

popular materials center 77%
community information center 12%
formal education support center 6%
independent learning center 16%
child's door to learning 25%
reference library 55%
research library 3%
community activities center 3%
(statistics from PLA, 1991)

Most libraries will choose one to two primary roles and one to two secondary roles to support depending on the library's size and budget. 40-50% of the budget is suggested to support primary roles, 30-40% on secondary roles and the rest out of the remaining budget — or by linking users to other libraries.

Publicly supported library service is based on the constitutional right of freedom of expression. Public libraries are public forums for accessing information. Guidelines exist to protect access and the regulation of user behavior. The American Library Association, currently under fire for many of these policies, has adopted policies like the Library Bill of Rights, the ALA code of professional ethics to ensure access to library services and materials. Other laws, constitutional, federal, state, and local, serve the same purpose. Unfortunately, many of these are currently under assault from interest groups, from the right and also from the left.

The guidelines established by the ALA on user behavior and library usage require that rules and policies be reasonable and narrowly drawn, but not overly restrictive, should not violate the Library Bill of Rights and should attempt to balance competing interests. Most importantly, in my opinion, they should be based on actual behavior and not upon arbitrary distinctions between individuals and classes of individuals. Policies shouldn't target specific users or groups of users based on the assumption or expectation that such users might engage in behavior that might disrupt library service. These policies have been carefully designed to foster fairness and equity in providing service and information.

I don't have to like everyone who comes to our library but I do have to be willing to try to offer an equitable level of service to all library users. I've noticed that some library users and staff have a bias against certain individuals and groups of users (including children). I can't really account for this, except maybe as a hold over from times when libraries were not democratic institutions open to the public.

The Whole Library Catalog 2 is a great source of information and entertainment. It includes a section called The Bad Old Days. This section lists the regulations issued in 1321 for users of the Sorbonne library. The rules include the following: no children or illiterates admitted, a book should be laid upon a desk only after the dust has been removed, maximum silence, as would be appropriate to premises "sacred and august", condemned books are available to professors of theology only — for use in the line of duty only, the professor is not to read such works for curiosity, lest he be poisoned" (reprinted from Sidney L. Jackson's Libraries and Librarianship in the West: A Brief History).

I'm fairly certain that there are some library users and librarians who would prefer a Bad Old Days Library. I suspect that in addition to barring children and illiterates that some librarians and some library patrons today would happily add to the list of those who wouldn't be allowed the privilege of library service. The fact that public libraries must attempt to meet the diverse interests and information needs of a variety of users provides an ongoing challenge.

Our library has rules that apply to all users, and creating an ongoing major disturbance is against the rules. People of any age talking in normal tones are not considered a disturbance. We cut slack for children (babies and toddlers) who may throw occasional hissy fits; but I've noticed that when things are going wrong, library staff are more likely to try to control the behavior of kids but are reluctant to try to control adult behavior. Faced with a child who is acting out and a businessman who is loudly monopolizing a public phone, library staff are often more apt to quell the child but not the adult, even though the adult may be the primary offender. It is easier to control a child's behavior because they are used to accepting authority from various adults, but an adult may be more assertive and escalate the encounter beyond the comfort level of the librarian.

As far as dealing with problem library patrons and disturbances I am inclined to think the kids are the least of our problems. Kids don't set up mini offices in the library and make (loud) sales calls for hours on end at the one public phone, they don't have oral sex in the stacks, they don't stalk library employees or other members of the public, they don't steal business reference materials, they don't socialize loudly during library programs, they don't verbally abuse library staff, they don't try to control other's access to materials via censorship attempts, and they don't drive a van through library windows...

All these things have happened in public libraries, and kids were not the problem. I suppose someone could argue that these problematic adults were out of control children who rampaged through libraries from tothood to teendom, but it seems unlikely to me.

My experience has been that most kids are fairly harmless and most of the bad behavior can be attributed to too much enthusiasm, energy. etc. If behavior needs to be corrected, it is usually easy to do — especially if you spell out very clearly that the specific behavior is the problem, not the child.

Such rules as are necessary should be applied equitably. Fairness, compassion, understanding, empathy and a sense of humor are essential. We tend to remember the problem people, whatever age, more than we remember all the people who were behaving nicely. Adults often behave more combatively than children do. Many libraries, due to funding problems, don't staff youth services areas at the same level they staff adult services. This baffles me — children are often in need of more support, assistance and direction, but aren't apt to receive even the same level of service as adults demand and receive.

The public library is a progressive democratic institution. Time for another library land slogan - libraries are the people's universities. Public libraries serve a larger portion of the community than just about any other local government agency. Public libraries serve the entire population from the cradle to the grave. Libraries also offer outreach programs that reach special populations — folks in jail, kids in the detention center, homebound, family literacy participants, daycare providers and kids, head start participants, school teachers and students, new immigrants, adult learners, library story time programs and reading programs encourage the development of skills that will help kids succeed in life. Libraries offer meeting room space for all kinds of community organizations. Libraries also provide public bulletin board areas for the distribution of information. Libraries also function as a referral service — providing reference information for users to access other services, agencies and organizations. As access to technology and information becomes even more important libraries can equal the playing field by providing access for those who can't afford the cost personally.

Or libraries could turn into yet another social space which leaves information, and thus power, in the hands of those who already have it. Some of the threats that currently face libraries are privatization efforts, family values activists, funding cuts, censorship attempts, and charging fees for accessing some services.

High tech, high touch — I hope this is the future for public libraries. I'd like to see more programs for kids and for families, areas for folks to meet and talk about books, av materials, politics, whatever. More quiet study areas and more space for tutors to meet with students. I'd like to see increased use of library meeting rooms by community groups and organizations. I'd really like to see even greater efforts to involve young adults.

Young adults (ages 12-16) account for almost a quarter of current library use but are seldom allocated an equitable level of the budget or services. They often want to volunteer and make a contribution but most of them in this generation have less contact with adults than any other generation so far. I see a great value in public libraries sponsoring youth advisory boards, holding book or av discussion groups and establishing mentoring contacts with teens.

Change is constant , but I hope that public libraries can continue to serve and function as progressive institutions. Maybe they will become even more creatively chaordic (the combination of chaos and order — tied into the concept of a self-generating, adaptable organization), flexible, organic and responsive to the environment in which they serve and function.

For more information about libraries you can contact the American Library Association (phone: 1-800-545-2433 or online at, your local library, or your local library's Friends of the Library group. A letter to your library's governing body is another very effective way of making your concerns and opinions about library service known. Many libraries have a great need for volunteers to assist with all sorts of activities; just ask your librarian about volunteering.

Ann Theis: Librarian and omnivorous reader. Subject to the whims of three cats. Married Mike despite the fact that twenty years earlier he was my first date in high school and that he refers to me as "the pixie" just a little too often. For fun: Spend as much time under water as possible. Fiddle with Book Links webpage (

Copyright © 1996 by Ann Theis. All rights reserved.